Sue Miller was giving fourth-graders a tour of the Victorian Home Museum in Belleville when it happened.
The volunteer had told them about Abraham Lincoln’s 1856 visit to Belleville and pointed out the cast-iron balcony railing that he stood behind to address a crowd. Before long, the students were reciting the Gettysburg Address.
“They knew every word, all the way through,” said Sue, a retired teacher. “It just absolutely sent chills up my spine. I’ll never forget it.”
Such moments make it worthwhile for St. Clair County Historical Society volunteers, staff and board members who work to keep the nonprofit museum open to the public.
They will celebrate the historic landmark’s 150th birthday at 10 a.m. Saturday in conjunction with the Fall Belleville Museum Open House Day.
“The theme is Women in Our History,” said curator William P. Shannon IV.
Activities at six locations will include exhibits, reenactments, music and walk of fame inductions. Admission is free.
Victorian Home Museum tours will revolve around Louisa Dobschutz, wife of the original owner, and her maid, Sophie Broom.
“You will get two completely different perspectives of what it was like to live and work in the home,” Will said.
Louisa’s husband, Moritz, was a debt collector who had immigrated from Germany. The couple had seven children.
Moritz built the brick, Greek Revival-style home at 701 E. Washington St. in 1866 with high ceilings, massive woodwork and a fireplace in almost every room.
The family enjoyed the privileges of wealth while Sophie emptied chamber pots, made fires and polished silver.
“We know the maid lived here — in the attic,” Will said. “It was hot, small and hard to get to.”
The Dobschutz home later served as an apartment building before the historical society bought it in 1963 and began restoration.
Today, walking in the front door is like going back in time. Upstairs and down, rooms are filled with period furniture, artifacts, photos, books and artwork.
“Sometimes, I have to step back and remind myself how lucky I am,” Will said.
Will, 39, is a Chicago native who came on board as a full-time employee four years ago after earning a doctorate in history at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It’s a dream job for someone who learned to love history as a boy, collecting coins and listening to stories about his Irish ancestors.
“They had never had a professional historian on staff,” Will said. “Norma Walker had been office manager for 28 years, and she did a great job of keeping everything in order.”
One of Will’s favorite pieces is a wooden stand with a beaded screen in the parlor. It would have been used to protect a woman’s waxy makeup from the heat of the fireplace.
The balcony railing came from a Belleville home that was demolished. Also in the library are photos, reproduction lithographs and other Lincoln memorabilia.
“Those came from a guy who had been collecting since he was a kid,” Will said. “He died, and his widow donated his collection.”
The historical society also owns the Emma Kunz House in Belleville, a German street house built in 1851 and moved to 602 Fulton St.
Tour guides at both sites work to bring history alive for visitors.
“You can tell kids that they had coal-burning fireplaces, but when you show them a coal-burning fireplace, that makes it real for them,” Will said.
Restoring and maintaining the historic structures is no easy task, especially with donations and volunteer elbow grease.
One volunteer is Joe Harnist, 62, an insurance agent whose office is in his childhood home in the same block. He also serves on the board.
“(Work at the museum) is pretty much constant, and some of the maintenance has gotten lost by the wayside,” he said. “So I’ve been trying to help them get caught up.”
In recent weeks, Joe and others have done landscaping, installed a fence around air-conditioning units and repaired porch lights.
Joe sees it as a way to help the community and his old neighborhood.
“I like history,” he said. “I’m a big buff on old mansions. I love Williamsburg. And there (are) not a lot of people around trying to preserve things any more. Not that we’re in the business of preservation. We’re in the business of education. But we’ve got a couple of old buildings that we need to take care of.”
Other volunteers work to get children interested in history through the School Tours Program, a joint project with Delta Kappa Gamma honor society for women teachers.
Any St. Clair County school can arrange for free bus transportation and tours for fourth-graders.
In five years, 1,638 students and 127 teachers and administrators from 14 schools have visited the museum. Kids are particularly fascinated by the beds with ropes holding up mattresses.
“We show them how they tightened the ropes,” Sue said. “They didn’t have box springs in those days. And we recite the old saying, “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.’ The sleep tight refers to the ropes.”
Sue also has gotten used to giggles when she talks about chamber pots.
The Victorian Home Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays or by appointment. The cost is $2 for adults or $1 for children.
People can help by becoming members, attending fundraising events, donating through wills or estate plans or sending checks.
Belleville Historical Society also will add four names to its Walk of Fame at 10 a.m. Saturday on the northwest quadrant of the downtown square.
Inductees are 1800s politician Gustave Koerner and his wife, Sophia, an educational activist; 1900s business leader Edward Daley; and early philharmonic conductor Julius Liese.
“(These are people) who have made significant contributions to our city, region, or nation or who have brought fame to Belleville,” according to a recent newsletter.
- What: Fall Belleville Museum Open House Day
- When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
- Victorian Home Museum, 701 E. Washington — A re-dedication will be held at 10 a.m. to celebrate the home’s 150th birthday. Self-guided tours focus on the original lady of the house and her maid (1 p.m. guided tour).
- Emma Kunz House, 602 Fulton — Visitors will experience a day in the life of a working-class woman in the 1800s, trying their hands at commonly performed tasks.
- Gustave Koerner House, 200 Abend — Re-enactors will portray several prominent Victorian women, including Sophie Koerner, Harriet Tubman and Louisa May Alcott.
- Labor & Industry Museum, 123 N. Church — An exhibit called “Ladies’ Work” will cover women and labor in the 19th century, including the County Poor Farm and Beauticians’ Union.
- Ebeling-Maurer House, 1106 W. Main St. — Activities include an interactive presentation on four women in West Belleville. Harmony Express Barbershop Singers will perform music of the women’s suffrage movement.
- Walk of Fame inductions — Belleville Historical Society will induct Gustave and Sophia Koerner, Edward Daley and Julius Liese at 10 a.m. on northwest quadrant of the Belleville square.
- Admission: Free
- Information: Call St. Clair County Historical Society at 618-234-0600 or the Labor & History Museum at 618-222-9430.
Belleville Historical Society Walk of Fame inductees
- Gustave and Sophia Koerner — Gustave Koerner immigrated from Germany in 1833 and was elected Illinois lieutenant governor in 1852. He helped organize the state’s Republican Party and served as Abraham Lincoln’s manager at its 1860 convention. Sophia founded Belleville Kindergarten Association in 1874. Their home on Mascoutah Avenue is under restoration.
- Edward Daley — Edward Daley moved to Belleville in 1916 to become executive director of the newly formed Greater Belleville Board of Trade. In 1917, he led an effort to get the U.S. War Department to build Scott Field. He became the first executive director of Belleville Chamber of Commerce in 1924 and began overseeing the planning and financing of Hotel Belleville in 1929.
- Julius Liese — Julius Liese immigrated from Germany in 1864, worked as a bookkeeper and taught music. He joined Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra in 1867, became its second conductor two years later and continued in that position until 1885. He established Liese Lumber Co. on East Main Street in 1874. He later served as president of Sucker State Drill Co. and co-invented a seed-planting drill.